Despite warnings from Superintendent Dr. Giovanna Donoyan, the Woonsocket School Committee opted not to fill several education vacancies Wednesday night, ordering an already stretched department staff to make do until auditors submit a year to date budget report for FY 2012.
Committeewoman Eleanor Nadeau was the lone voice of dissent on the committee regarding the decision to postpone hiring a principal for Leo Savoie Elementary School. Two instructional leaders (LEAs) have filled the gap since principal Tom Hazzard retired in December, performing time consuming teacher evaluations and other duties that would normally fall to a principal. Donoyan fears that a continuation of that arrangement could jeopardize funding for the positions, which are paid for with federal title grants.
"Districts have to give ample support of how we're going to use that money to the benefit of the students under very strict guidelines," said Donoyan. Certain expenses, she explained, do not qualify for federal dollars. "We're not supposed to supplant what should be covered by local funds. I don't want to jeopardize federal funding."
The department is under significant pressure to limit spending after turning in a $2.7 million deficit for FY 2011, despite a court order to balance their figures. The shortage came despite last year's cuts in staffing and programs, and ironically, was blamed on - the same employees that are currently picking up the slack for shortened staff.
With a budget of $59 million, down from $79 million in the late 90s thanks to cuts in state aid, School Committee members often find themselves in the tight position of choosing between complying with state education mandates and making the cuts needed to run on decreased funding. On Wednesday night, they choose the later.
"We need to know where we stand financially before we move forward" said Committee Chair Anita McGuire-Forcier. "They're already doing the job," she said of the instructional leaders. "I am asking them to continue doing it for another three to four weeks while we wait to find out where we stand and I find that reasonable."
The report, which is expected to be completed by Braver PC within the next month, in ideal circumstances will verify figures provided Wednesday night by Business Manager Stacey Busby. According to Busby's presentation, the department has spent around $27 million of their $59 million budget for FY 2012 - an allotment which needs to last until June. An additional $5 million of the department budget falls under "encumbrances" - funds tied up by specific anticipated expenses.
"You can see how we are just hanging by a thread at this point," said Donoyan.
"I would caution the school committee to recognize that without a certified principal in a school, you're in violation of Rhode Island law," she added. "I am stretching the limit when it comes to federal regulations at this point."
"What are we doing... delaying the obvious? No matter how it turns out we still have to have a principal. It's inevitable, I don't care who looks at the books," said Nadeau.
Nadeau also cast the only vote against an amendment by Committee member Christopher Roberts in support of the Superintendent's spending freeze.
"I'm not a sage but I predict we will reach that total very shortly," Nadeau said of the budget. "Our projections weren't realistic. We're already in trouble. We don't have enough money to run this district."
The committee unanimously voted to in favor of postponing hiring a deputy superintendent.
"Without a doubt, I believe we need a deputy superintendent," said McGuire-Forcier. "This will be the third time we go without and I've seen the mess it leaves. However, I will not be supporting this position until Braver is done going through our books to make sure we know where we're at. We can put it back on the agenda when we know where our money is."
Several residents emphasized the need for increased fiscal responsibility during Wednesday's public good and welfare, but parents in attendance disputed the notion that the deficit was the result of irresponsible spending.
"Our school department budget has been cut by $7 million in the last four years," said Donna Houle. "It's not easy. You cannot take away from the kids. The kids are struggling. The teachers are struggling. The staff is struggling. The custodians are struggling. You cannot say, we're not going to give them the supplies that they need. We're not going to give them the books that they need because we don't have the money."